The death toll from the fires that overtook Maui was already growing significantly on Thursday as questions mounted over whether officials had acted with enough urgency to evacuate the tourist haven of Lahaina, where many people described harrowing escapes.
When the brush fire was first spotted early on Tuesday, Maui County officials ordered evacuations in an area on the eastern edge of town near a school. But within a few hours, officials announced on Facebook and on the county website that the blaze had been “100% contained.” And for the next few hours, while the county Emergency Management Agency warned people to stay away from several blocked roads, there appear to have been no further evacuation orders.
Only as the fire spread rapidly into Lahaina, rekindled by powerful winds, did officials order more evacuations, according to statements posted on the county’s website and social media accounts. But by then, in the afternoon, some people were already dodging flames and thick smoke as they made last-minute efforts to reach safety, and many residents said they never received any alerts.
At a news conference on Thursday night, the fire chief, Bradford Ventura, said the blaze had moved so quickly that it was “nearly impossible” for emergency management officials to send out evacuation orders in time.
Asked if he was warned about the fire, one Lahaina resident, Mark Stefl, was blunt. “Oh, hell no,” said Mr. Stefl, who said he fled with his wife when they saw flames about 500 yards from their house. He said the fire quickly closed in on them as they drove through thick black smoke — and finally to safety. “Nobody saw this coming,” he said.
Claire Kent, who works in Lahaina taking tourists out on a boat off the coast, said she began to panic around 3:30 p.m. when she saw a billowing cloud of black smoke and heard an explosion. A neighbor told her three nearby gas stations were on fire and urged her to pack a bag to flee. As she and several friends tried to drive out of town, she said, she saw people trying to escape on foot, some holding children.
Even then, said Ms. Kent, she had still not been notified of any need to evacuate — save for a shirtless man on a bicycle along the road who was screaming: “You have to get out!”
“That was the closest thing to a warning,” said Ms. Kent, 26, who eventually made it to the safety of a friend’s home about 25 miles away. “There weren’t police officers with megaphones telling people you need to evacuate.”
But some residents said they had received an emergency evacuation alert, raising questions about why the alerts did not reach more people in harm’s way.
Carl Cudworth, 63, evacuated his home in Lahaina with his wife, Laurie Prozezinski, 52, and the rest of their family after Mr. Cudworth received an urgent notification on his cellphone around 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
The alert, which showed up in red text on a white background, blared loudly three times, unlike any other noise Mr. Cudworth had heard from his phone before. “Kind of like a fire engine,” he said. After he opened his phone to read the message, it disappeared, he said, but it was enough to get them to flee the town.
Maui’s mayor, Richard T. Bissen Jr., said evacuation orders had been issued for “affected areas,” including Lahaina but did not share more details about why other people did not get them. And he acknowledged that some people — particularly people in hotels, he said — were told to shelter in place to avoid clogging up the roads. A notice on the county’s website at 4:45 p.m. said that “people on the west side” of Maui — where Lahaina is — “are advised to shelter in place unless evacuations are ordered.”
Another resident, Ernesto Perez, 42, said that with a serious brush fire reported, he had kept an ear out on Tuesday in case the island’s emergency sirens blared. They never did, but before he knew it, a powerful gust of wind shrouded his apartment building with thick smoke around 5 p.m.
Mr. Perez gathered his mother and four daughters and they piled into his pickup truck. Behind them, he said, the building was ablaze. Mr. Perez drove away as fast as he could, maneuvering his way around blocked roads.
“It was basically raining fire,” Mr. Perez said. “All over.”
Robbie Wares, who has lived in Lahaina for decades, said the only warning she got was from someone — it was not clear who it was — shouting out of a moving vehicle that passed by her house. She fled as she saw the skies darkening and filling with smoke.
“They didn’t get out of the car,” she said of whoever was giving the warnings. “If I hadn’t been home, I wouldn’t have heard.”
Jill Cowan, Gaya Gupta and Michael Levenson contributed reporting.